The SF stories of Arthur C. Clarke aren’t great

The Collected Stories of Arthur C. Clarke aren't great.

Over the course of more than six decades of writing science fiction, Arthur C. Clarke (1917-2008) published twenty-two novels and twelve collections of short stories as well as fifteen nonfiction books of what is typically called “popular science.” His last novel appeared in 1997 and was followed in 2001 by The Collected Stories of Arthur C. Clarke. I listened to all fifty-one hours of the Audible edition of the book, and I must say it was an exhausting exercise.


The Collected Stories of Arthur C. Clarke, Audible Edition, narrated by Ralph Lister, Ray Porter, and Jonathan Davis (2016) @@@@ (4 out of 5)


Three hard-to-forget stories

Among the one hundred sixteen stories in this omnibus collection (although I counted only one hundred four in the Audible edition) just one clearly stands out: “A Meeting With Medusa,” which won the Nebula Award for Best Novella in 1972. The story was first published in Playboy (December 1971). “Medusa” follows a celebrated British lighter-than-air balloon pilot from a catastrophic explosion during his career on Earth to a pioneering flight through the upper atmosphere of Jupiter. There, in conditions that prevent the use of fixed-wing aircraft, his hydrogen-filled balloon permits him to explore the strange conditions of life . . . yes, life . . . in the soupy gas that girds the solar system’s largest planet. And if this prospect strikes you as incredible, consider the recently announced findings by scientists that they’d discovered hints of life in the outer atmosphere of Venus.

But a couple of other stories still conjure up vivid memories as well. The earlier of these is “The Nine Billion Names of God,” first published in Frederik Pohl‘s Star Science Fiction Stories (1953). It’s a tale of IBM computer engineers called to Tibet by Buddhist lamas who press them into service to fulfill their spiritual obligations on the largest possible scale. Yes, they create a computerized prayer wheel.

Later came “The Steam-Powered Word-Processor,” which originally appeared in Analog (January 1986). Set in nineteenth-century Britain, it’s a light-hearted tale that imagines what might have occurred had Charles Babbage (1791-1871)—styled “Reverend Charles Cabbage” in the story—succeeded in building his Analytical Engine. Babbage’s creation was a primitive early computer that prompted Lord Byron’s daughter, Lady Ada Lovelace (1815-52), to write the first computer code. Alas, Clarke doesn’t bring her into the tale.

The early stories of Arthur C. Clarke aren’t great

It’s difficult to find hints of greatness to come in Clarke’s early efforts. For instance, this collection begins with his first published story, “Travel by Wire!” The tale first appeared in Amateur Science Fiction Stories (December 1937), and no wonder. Like several of those that followed it, it is indeed an amateur effort. (Interestingly, however, Clarke resurrected the idea in one of his last stories, a tale coauthored with Stephen Baxter under the title “The Wire Continuum.”)

Clarke’s early stories remind me of my own sophomoric stories in the 1970s, when I managed to publish perhaps a dozen SF tales in magazines and comic books devoted to the genre. The best that can be said of them is that they’re “cute.” Clearly, Arthur C. Clarke went on to bigger and better things. But the tales solidly grounded on scientific fact—the “hard science fiction” on which his reputation is based—didn’t dominate his literary output until much later in his career.

The early stories were also naĂŻve

More to the point, Clarke’s early tales—not just in the 1930s but as late as the 1960s—all read as hopelessly lame. It astonished me to see how ill-informed the man clearly was—the science is surprisingly naĂŻve—and how powerfully his fiction reflected the prejudices of his time. Consider, for example, the recurring themes in these early stories:

  • Nearly all the characters are men—British men, actually, for the most part—with simple, Anglo-Saxon names. Women rarely appear, except for a nagging wife, one who talks too much, and a secretary.
  • Atomic power seems to provide the energy for pretty much everything in the future Clarke projects, from land transportation to spaceships.
  • There is life, often intelligent life, on Mars and Venus. And, most of the time, it’s human.
  • When men (and it’s always men) encounter extraterrestrials, they all speak perfect English. Yes, the aliens as well as the humans.

Reading (or listening to) The Collected Stories of Arthur C. Clarke might make sense for a serious student of science fiction. For a casual fan of the genre, not so much. The SF stories of Arthur C. Clarke aren’t great

For further reading

I’ve also reviewed The Science Fiction Hall of Fame, Volume One 1929-1964 edited by Robert Silverberg (Reassessing the Science Fiction Hall of Fame), which includes a much larger sampling of good SF.

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